I Asked 6 “Dropouts” If They Regret Not Finishing School

Oprah, Steve Jobs, Anna Wintour, Mark Zuckerberg, Maya Angelou and Bill Gates have something in common besides superstardom: None of them have college degrees.

There is plenty of evidence that a degree is not necessarily proof of success in this day and age, just as the lack of one doesn’t indicate failure. But the idea that higher education is a vital step in the path to gainful employment still persists.

In a national survey conducted in 2015, only 38 percent of students who graduated college in the past decade strongly agree that their higher education was worth the cost. Americans have accumulated about $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, more than what’s owed on credit cards or car loans. Conditions are similarly dire in other countries around the world.

Given these statistics, it’s not surprising that more and more teens are choosing to forgo the “ideal” of a college experience. I talked to six people who did, both in the U.S. and outside of it, and asked how the decision shaped their lives and careers. Read their stories below.

Fabi Pina

Fabi is a 29-year-old marketing and communications manager for a stealth-mode startup based in Taiwan.

Why did you choose not to finish pursuing your college degree?

I wanted to study fashion merchandising and applied to my dream school, Parsons School of Design. I was accepted with a partial scholarship, but it was still not nearly enough for me to be able to afford it. Instead, I enrolled at my local college’s business administration program. Despite the curriculum not aligning with exactly what I wanted in life, I took school very seriously and it frustrated me that nobody else around me seemed to.

I remember one moment very vividly: I was in the bathroom when I heard a few of my classmates complaining about having to go to class and discussing how many more points they needed to pass the course. These were the same girls I had to shush as I gave my painstakingly prepared presentation on historical revisionism earlier that day. It hit me right then that in three years’ time, we would all have the same exact diploma, we would probably compete for the same jobs and no employer would care about how many all-nighters I had pulled to deliver quality term papers.

How has that decision shaped your life and career?

Not having a college degree has presented some roadblocks. I once missed out on an opportunity to work in a different country because a degree was one of the requirements for the work permit application. It has also been the cause of many awkward moments in social situations. To avoid being judged, I used to jump at the opportunity to bring up my 4.0 average “during the one year I did attend college.” However, the impact has been way more positive than negative. The random skills I’ve acquired have allowed me to travel the world, learn a third language and work with amazing tech startups in Asia doing a range of things from digital marketing to product development. I am also no longer embarrassed — and am maybe even proud — to admit I am a college dropout.

If you could go back in time, would you make the same choice?

I would absolutely make the same choice all over again, except this time I’d fret much less. I’d also make myself watch Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech to remind myself that “you can’t connect the dots looking forward, only looking backwards.” I cried constantly when I first made the decision — it was scary! I had no idea that dropping out would lead me to take risks that I would never have taken if I had the security of a college degree, including all the strange jobs I took up and, perhaps most importantly, selling all my belongings to move across the world.

What advice would you give to those who are unsure about whether they want to attend or finish college?

I should make it clear that I am in no way against a traditional college education, and ultimately it depends on what you want in life. For some career paths, a degree is indispensable; for others, not so much anymore. Technology has drastically changed the world we live in and having a degree no longer gives you an automatic advantage or the same kind of security it used to.

The only advice I feel truly confident giving is: If you do decide not to pursue a college degree, you should never stop pursuing experiences, growth and self-education. I learned to work under pressure in a hospital’s emergency room, lost my fear of public speaking during my short stint as a television host and taught myself web development and graphic design thanks to blogging and [running] an online vintage shop. The internet strips us of excuses for not doing something or learning something because information is accessible without the price of a student loan.

Mois Medine

Mois is a 56-year-old jewelry designer and CEO based in New York City. He’s also Leandra’s dad!!!!

Why did you choose not to finish getting your college degree?

I went to college for four years and, in total, I had three years’ worth of credits. I just did not enjoy studying; I lost my patience, and subjects and textbooks did not interest me. I totally felt that I was wasting time and money by being in school.

How has that decision shaped your life and career?

I started working and I was making good money, so I was very happy and did not feel that I was missing out 0n anything. The only downside was not being able to brag about a college degree or a diploma. When the topic of university experiences came up among friends, I mostly remained quiet.

If you could go back in time, would you make the same choice?

If I knew I would become a private business operator, I would make the same choice to drop out of college. I believe that the best university is the university of life. However, if I wanted to follow other passions, such as becoming an architect, I would have to have finished college. The educational background necessary for becoming an architect would be crucial and not so easily attainable in the university of life.

What advice would you give to those who are unsure about whether they want to attend or finish college?

If you don’t enjoy learning or studying, if one does not believe that the path of college will help prepare himself or herself for a great future, don’t even waste a day in school. There’s no point to go to a college and waste tons of money and many valuable years of your youth. And if you do believe that education is fundamental for your future, then you should be prepared work very hard to get yourself into the best school possible [that you can afford].

Liz Negrete

Liz is a 22-year-old model/stylist based in Aguascalientes, Mexico.

Why did you choose not to finish getting your college degree?

In Mexico, where I live, the normal thing to do is attend high school for three years from age 15 to 18. It can be very expensive though. After trying to get into a good high school, not being able to afford it in the end and having an abortion at 16, I decided to give up on “normal” schooling. I took an alternative route and waited until I was legal (18 years old) to take an exam to get my certificate. You prepare for the exam for about four months and hope you get a decent grade so you can apply for college after that. The truth is, I had no idea what I wanted to pursue for my career. My mind circled between everything from fashion to sociology to genetic engineering.

In the meantime, I set up a photography studio and started doing campaigns for small brands and a few collaborations with national magazines. I did everything: took photographs, styled shoots, modeled, etc. People would be amazed when I said I was only a teenager. Sometimes I lied about my age and level of education because I hated feeling judged.

How has that decision shaped your life and career?

By 19, when I finally took my certification exam, I realized I already had four years of experience doing something I love, so I decided not to apply to any colleges. I felt confident in my decision at first, but this past December, [due to complications with my studio and the agency I co-founded,] everything collapsed. I’m still a model and a stylist, but I’m at a difficult crossroads right now where I’m evaluating the direction I want my life to take. If I’d gone to college, I might have more traditional career options open to me, but then I wouldn’t have had the experience of building my little business from scratch. Not going to college has made things more challenging for me, but those challenges have taught me so much. I have a mixed bag of feelings about the whole thing.

If you could go back in time, would you make the same choice?

I’ve managed to make a name for myself in Mexico, so, studio or no studio, agency or no agency, people still hire me. That security gives me the confidence to say that I don’t regret my decision.

What advice would you give to those who are unsure about whether they want to attend or finish college?

Whatever you decide, don’t get too comfortable because life will throw you curveballs, whether you go to college or not. Also, go with your gut, pursue whatever thing you think about first at the beginning of every day, and if that doesn’t work out, pursue the second thing.

Mike Sposito

Mike is a 34-year-old barber based in Brooklyn, where he runs his own studio, Sposito.

Why did you choose not to finish getting your college degree?

First off, not only did I not obtain a college degree, but I’m also a high school flunky. I basically just stopped going to high school. I received my GED soon after. Then I spent a semester or two at a junior college in my hometown, but it was clear that my experience at the junior college level was going to be an extension of my high school “failures.”

So I wouldn’t say I CHOSE to quit school. I mean, I made a lot of choices that ultimately led to quitting, but I lacked the maturity to consciously face a decision like that with any degree of agency. I was lost and uninspired, so I simply dropped out.

How has that decision shaped your life and career?

Looking back now, I have very few regrets. I know my family was freaking out a bit — they probably assumed I was on the path from flunky to junky. I feel a little badly about that. My career trajectory went through a period of, shall we say, trial and error for a couple of years: a brief stint in construction, some years as a competitive horse trainer, etc. But then I started cutting hair.

I think almost everyone who knew me was like, “WTF?!” I was so attracted to the freedom of cutting hair as a career. You can work at a place like Supercuts, or you can be the next Paul Mitchell. The minute I picked up a set of shears, I never looked back — they were the vessel I needed to continue my education. I started managing barbershops and eventually helped open a chain of them, where I wrote and performed training demonstrations for large groups. I made enough money to buy myself a semester abroad in Italy, and as of a year ago, I made enough to open my own studio.

Life was my college experience. College or no college, nothing is guaranteed. I’ve watched a lot of friends go to school, come out with a ton of debt and fall into careers that are unfulfilling, careers where the only way to move up the ladder is taking some series of standardized corporate tests. No thank you. I think I got off lucky.

If you could go back in time, would you make the same choice?

It’s hard to see it playing out any differently. I mean, college sounds really fun, and yeah, I wish I’d had the opportunity to learn from some inspiring teachers, but I probably would have fucked it up.

What advice would you give to those who are unsure about whether they want to attend or finish college?

I would suggest people finish high school. It’s not that hard, and it’s often free. As for college, do whatever you want — just don’t expect there to be a fat check and a key to life waiting for you when you graduate.

Sara Manning

Sara is a 29-year-old former yacht chef and current traveling mom based in Palma de Mallorca, Spain.

Why did you choose not to finish getting your college degree?

In college, I had a pattern: Complete a yacht contract, attend a semester of school or travel somewhere new, repeat. The cycle of work/saving money/school made it so I didn’t have to take out student loans, and that was very important to me. I intended to finish my degree, but I kept getting exciting opportunities, so my decision to drop out was less of a specific revelation and more of a gradual shift in goals and priorities.

How has that decision shaped your life and career?

It doesn’t come up a lot. I guess maybe because I don’t believe there is a time limit on finishing your degree. I know that is a privileged outlook as it requires a certain amount of flexibility within your life (budget, time, etc.) but I think in general our culture is fixated on a timeline that doesn’t necessarily exist.

If you could go back in time, would you make the same choice?

Definitely. Staying debt-free has allowed me to take advantage of unique opportunities. With that freedom, I have been able to live an interesting and fulfilling life. For a while, I felt really insecure that I was the only one in my friend group who hadn’t finished her degree. I wish I realized sooner that education is not a race and the decisions I was making were the right decisions for me.

What advice would you give to those who are unsure about whether they want to attend or finish college?

Don’t be afraid to take your time and get really clear on your intentions, whether that means a semester off or a couple of years away to get to know yourself better. I think this is especially important if you plan to take out loans to complete your degree. Debt can remove a lot of options from your life.

Grace Slater

Grace is a 27-year-old business change consultant based in London. 

Why did you choose not to finish getting your college degree?

I always struggled with learning in a traditional classroom environment. I was always getting in trouble because the traditional education system caters to one type of person and one type of learning style. I have a very short attention span and am very practical, so it just wasn’t for me. When I was faced with the choice of going to university and being roped into another four years of education, I genuinely couldn’t think of anything worse. In retrospect, I probably didn’t give the decision enough thought.

At that age, you don’t realize the impact one decision is going to have on the rest of your life. However, it was probably better that I didn’t sit around for weeks debating my decision. If I had, the outcome probably would have been a very different one. I just knew I didn’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer or in any profession where a degree is utterly essential. Other than that, I had no idea what it was I wanted to do, so I thought, Why not get out in the world and give something a shot?

How has that decision shaped your life and career?

Let me start by saying it has come up in every single job interview I have ever had. People don’t just…not notice. It is a big black hole on your resume. I faced some obstacles earlier on in my career because if you don’t have tons of experience to demonstrate your ability, then an employer will use your education to evaluate your qualifications by default. To compensate, I decided to take a couple of light courses like touch typing and business administration just to brush up on some basic skills and bulk up my CV.

At this point, I’ve gained enough experience to be evaluated on that alone. I am so proud to say I’ve been offered jobs at very reputable companies that “ONLY HIRE COLLEGE GRADUATES,” as they are fond of advertising. I’ve been the only non-graduate in a workplace more than once, and it is not something I hide — it is something I sing from the rooftops. I have had many employers/interviewers say things like, “We don’t normally hire people without degrees, but you are interesting. At the age of 18, you didn’t feel the pressure to conform to what everyone else was doing, and that is the kind of maverick we want in our business.”

If you are going to forgo college though, I think you really, really, really have to own it and have a clear reason why this decision is right for you, even if you just have a one-liner prepared for job interviewers. They will ask, and you need to have an answer. It is also worth noting that I have not always been this confident about my decision. There were times when my conviction wavered and I thought I made the wrong choice, but I’ve learned that self-doubt is not unique to people who don’t have a degree — it’s a standard for all twenty-somethings trying to secure their first job in the real world.

If you could go back in time, would you make the same choice?

It is the best decision I ever made. Education isn’t for everyone. Not being suited to it doesn’t mean you are less intelligent, ambitious or driven than your graduate counterparts. You just have to have the tenacity to find your own path! I had no idea how much I was going against the grain when I decided not to pursue a degree. I also had no idea how much it would shape me as a person or that I would ultimately wear it as a badge of pride.

What advice would you give to those who are unsure about whether they want to attend or finish college?

Think carefully about what doors it will close as well as open. You must be realistic about the fact that some professions will not be available to you. Do you want to work in an industry that absolutely requires an undergraduate degree or higher? Think it through.

I wish I had been more appreciative of the value of work experience/internships. When your education is lacking compared to other candidates, it’s crucial to get as much work experience and as many opportunities as you possibly can to bulk up your resume — not even necessarily at highbrow institutions. I worked for 18 months in a bar, I was a receptionist, I did administration work, etc. You are not going to fall straight into your dream job. Looking for the right one is a lot like dating: You need to kiss a few frogs before you land it.

Also, do not be afraid to get creative and be ballsy! I constantly apply for jobs that are advertised as “for college graduates only.” I often email hiring managers directly and highlight what I offer that graduates might not. You need to be bold until your experience speaks for itself.

Illustrations by Gabrielle Lamontagne.

Harling Ross

Harling is a writer and was most recently the Brand Director at Man Repeller.

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